The first time London & I met, t'was a bit rocky. The wind was bustling, the fish & chips were astronomically priced & unimpressive, and the sites were lack luster. My my, how things have changed. After what seemed like a 10 mile hike into the city to the London Bridge Hotel, Mum & I cleaned up & rolled out for an obvious first stop at Neal's Yard Dairy near the Borough Market. The shop was nearly a 5 minute walk from our hotel. Intentional? Absolutely. Needless to say, upon second impression, it was love at first...bite?
Just minutes after tasting some delightful British cheeses & chatting with the monger, I walked out of the shop with a 10 am appointment to check out the Neal's Yard Arches...basically an urban version of cheese caves. This is where the affinage takes place as well as all distribution (local & export). Luckily, I was able to sleep with all the excitement!
The next morning I was up bright & early for a pastry & cup of coffee & then off to the arches (Mum came too), where I would spend the next 3 hours absorbing cheese knowledge from. Chris George, responsible for tasting & events for Neal's Yard and the nice man you see below holding that delicious wheel of raclette (the only British version I do believe), was kind enough to give us a history lesson on Neal's Yard Dairy and walk us through a tasty tour of the arches. It was absolutely fabulous.
The history of this lovely cheese empire goes a little something like like this...in the 70's Nicolas Saunders opened a number of businesses in Neal's Yard, Covent Garden...a run down district of London with inexpensive rent. One of which, was a Diary where Randolf Hodgson was a young cheesemaker producing & selling fresh greek cheeses. Randolf would eventually begin supplementing his cheese with more firm aged styles ordering through a wholesaler & with little knowledge of who the makers were & where it came from. Then, one special day in cheese history, Hilary Charnley, a local cheesemaker, sent Randolf a sample of her cheese with a lovely hand written note inviting him up to the farm. After visting Hilary's dairy & several others in her area, Randolf came back to london with a car load of cheese (heaven?!?). The curd just keeps piling up from there & we now have Neal's Yard Dairy...connecting the world with the cheesemakers of the Bristish Isles through their 2 shops in London & distribution throughout the world. Randolf still remains the owner of the business & is very active in connecting with the famers as well as selecting the cheese. He has notes on every batch of Montgomery Cheddar for the last 30-some-odd-years. A batch is made every day. Oh yes...serious cheese-biz.
Throughout the 3 hours of enjoying the arches, Chris walked us (when I say us, I mean Mum & I...there was 1 other wholesaler there for about 30 mins, but that's it) through the different aging rooms tasting cheeses at different parts of their aging process. Each cheese has it's place in carefully monitored space with specific temperature & humidy settings (see pic at right for the a room filled with washed rind goodness). The best part of this process was really tasting the differences in the different batches of the same cheese. The flavor profile of the cheese can change based on the starter culture used(many times they have to use a different one every day to keep bacteria from taking over...that's a real long story short), the diet of the cows & hence the milk, the weather...you name it The same cheese can vary from day to day, which is why it's always important to have a taste. As if anyone needs a reason.
It was an amazing day in the arches & I am so thankful to Chris for his time & knowledge of these delightful British cheeses. Favorites coming out of the tour that will hopefully be available at a shop near you are...
-Ragstone: unpasturized goat milk
-Colston Basset Stilton: pasturized cow milk
-Stitchelton: unpasturized cow milk
-Cardo: unpasturized goat milk
-Berkswell: unpasturized sheep milk
-Montgomery Cheddar: unpasturized cow milk
Neal's Yard Dairy is a remarkable ambassador, affineur, & maker of British cheese & a gift to all lovers of the curd. Bloody wicked day. Brilliantly wicked cheese.
Yes, we did wear hair nets & full body cheese gear for this portion of the journey. Hot.
Next stop, after some necessary London roaming of course, was La Fromagerie. This shop & cafe came to us highly recommended...even touted as the best cheese shop in London, so I was anxious as all get out to have a look. Mum & I sat down in the cafe to some delicious charcuterie, greens (hallelulah), & a glass of wine. Every bite was superb, but there was a certain warmth missing. Then to the Cheese Room. Some girls dream of a walk in closet stacked with Christian Louboutin, I dream of something much like this (check out the pic below). A walk-in curd closet. Is that bad? It is just beautiful. However, with all of this wonderment, the Fromagerie was a bit of a let down. The first employee we saw treated us like street rats, the monger had the personality of day old baguette, and the only friendly face in the place does not eat pork (most of the lunch/snack menu had something to do with a pig)...no help. All the fancy closets & cheese in the world cannot buy you a happy fomagerie. Let this be a lesson to all of us yearning for the curd closet the size of a small house...money cannot buy you soul. Hopefully I caught them on a bad day, for the cheese's sake.